No sweltering on the porch, no scuppernongs, no pickled pigs knuckles. Above all, no real sense of the simultaneous strangeness and closeness of other people. Director Bartlett Sher’s production of Harper Lee’s enthralling novel To Kill a Mockingbird arrives on gusts of Broadway success and tides of right thinking. It has a strong central performance by Rafe Spall, full of modest conviction as the white lawyer Atticus Finch, and a blazing one from Patrick O’Kane as a Klan-leaning bully. Nevertheless, this is a thin, often awkward evening. More of an argument than an experience.
Aaron Sorkin’s “new play” puts the courtroom drama, in which Finch defends a black workman against a trumped-up charge of rape, centre stage from the outset. It is the framework of the entire evening rather than the culmination of exclusions and longstanding tribalism. For the first time ever, a design by the great Miriam Buether kept me apart from the action rather than plunging me into it: courtroom, homestead and jail are by turns perched in a bleak grey warehouse. The sense of an inbred township in which families can identify traits down generations – “every third Merriweather is morbid” – is missing, visually and verbally. In Lee’s novel, fragrance and fury make a poisonous mixture: ladylike white women fanning their prejudices as they sip their tea are the dainty version of the men who gather together in hoods ready to lynch. The sense of group pressure would add dramatic force: the stage is often underpopulated, not least in the court scene (compare the milling crowds of the Gregory Peck film!) where spectators don’t lean expectantly into the action but are corralled into a small space like quizzical budgerigars.
Also missing is the novel’s luxuriant idiosyncrasy. The history of the outsider Boo Radley, feared and persecuted by the children, is absent until the closing scenes when, in a sudden gabble of plot summaries, he pops up behind a door (Boo!). Lee’s novel creates a landscape in which everyone whose life is not known is suspected. Sorkin’s play is about a straightforward clash.
The N-word is used more than once, but some aspects of the novel have been adjusted. The black housekeeper Calpurnia – more or less silent in Lee’s account – forcefully, and not altogether plausibly, tackles Finch for expecting her to be grateful, while Finch is seen as less wholly heroic, not least because he expects gratitude. Still, Calpurnia does not have the inner heft of the white kids (one modelled on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote) who boss the plot around, telling the audience what is going on. They do so often while capering – looking far too clean and spookily old. They instruct us rather than, as the novel does and what all great theatre should, allow us to stand in another’s shoes.
I hope that the West End audiences now on their feet for To Kill a Mockingbird may soon be doing the same for The Mozart Question. What a radiant production Jessica Daniels has made of Michael Morpurgo’s short story. I have been struggling to get to Cirencester’s Barn since it opened in 2018; it is now high on my list of theatres around which to build a day out. The former Nissen hut on the edge of a golden town, with room for 200 under its wooden rafters, is not only recharging established plays, but creating new work. As here.
This is the important story of Jewish musicians forced by Nazis to play their instruments in the concentration camps, often as a terrible sanitising welcome to new arrivals off the trains. It is a vital memorial, which also floats the question of whether art is contaminated by circumstances. Vicki Berwick’s adaptation could do with some tucks; it sometimes lumbers into flatness (“you lost our music… don’t lose our son”) in a production that marvellously shows words are not the only way of steering a theatrical plot in the theatre.
Eight of the nine performers are musicians: a tight, all-string ensemble who plait their dialogue with notes from Rossini, klezmer and Vivaldi, as well as Wolfgang. A duet for violins, one slowly entwining the other, is heard as two characters fall in love. An adolescent finds a unique voice when picking up the violin, moving from teenage scraping to silvery sound. As prisoners dream of a life outside the camp they hear – unreachable but nevertheless present – harmony ringing around them.
A traditional Venice – street lamps, marionettes and warm summer nights – is conjured by Ceci Calf’s beautifully spare design in which a crumbling brick wall is covered with small pages of sheet music. Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s magnificent lighting carves a warm space for a friendly barber’s shop (in a nice touch the musician who has put down his violin in favour of shears is praised for the rhythm with which he cuts hair). Then the colour drains away. The camps, reached in a gush of smoke as if from a train, are evoked by the lack of light and by stillness. Standing together as if clamped by an iron fist, at one painful moment musicians distort their bodies, lifting cellos as well as violins into the air: the instruments seem to have their own life.
Clybourne Park was a knockout when it opened at the Royal Court 12 years ago. Bruce Norris’s play is a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s mighty 1959 exploration of racism and money in America, A Raisin in the Sun: its skill is to disguise satire as drawing-room comedy, teasing the audience with uneasy jokes, and to use the resources of the theatre to pivot their preconceptions. The first half shows a comfy, middle-class white neighbourhood – standard lamps, the National Geographic, a woman in a starched skirt fussing around with iced drinks – startled by the arrival of a black family (can they ski?); the second shows the same neighbourhood a generation on, when most of the property owners are black and the incoming threat is from a white couple who want to raze the area’s history by demolition. “The history of America is the history of private property,” one character declares; James Turner’s neat, economical design highlights the argument by beginning and ending with a grand doll’s house lit up in the centre of the stage.
This still feels shrewd, and sometimes penetrating, but the bite of its newness has weakened: the second half tapers off; it is needling rather than threatening. Still, director Oliver Kaderbhai’s very bright, crisp production makes a good case for its revival. There is a terrific performance from Katie Matsell, doubling as a profoundly deaf, patronised wife and a gormless, gabby liberal. Oh, and the best tampon joke since poor Charles and Camilla’s moment. Why are tampons like white women? Answers on a non-PC PC.
Star ratings (out of five)
To Kill a Mockingbird ★★★
The Mozart Question ★★★★
Clybourne Park ★★★